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July 2, 2013

5 steps toward saving Johnstown

An exclusive look at report by crime and violence commission

JOHNSTOWN — The Johnstown Crime and Violence Commission is recommending increasing police protection, limiting Section 8 housing and removing a downtown correctional halfway house as ways to reduce criminal activity in the city.

Those are among the major steps outlined by the task force. Others include improving communication between public officials and local drug treatment centers and encouraging nonprofit organizations and businesses to take active roles in helping the city address its crime issues.

Panel members are prepared to make their suggestions to City Council after spending the past six months studying crime in the city. A public announcement is scheduled for 10 a.m. today at City Hall.

“It’s not a one-person or one-element problem,” said the commission’s chairman, state Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown.

“It’s not all the Community Corrections Center. It’s not all the fact that people are walking away from the drug rehab programs that don’t have a whole lot of supervision to them, and it’s not all about the people that are not supposed to be in public housing that are, or that moved from public housing originally into the abandoned apartments, the thousand apartments in Moxham and Hornerstown and the rest that are (owned by) slumlords. It’s not one thing; it’s all of them.”

Four subcommittees made recommendations:

• Law enforcement: The city should establish a strategic enforcement team, consisting of four police officers and two intelligence analysts, assigned with the task of targeting drug use and violent crime. The cost would likely be between $350,000 and $400,000. The team would be part of a

Johnstown Police Department force that has decreased from 52 full-time officers to 31 during the past decade.

Government officials, the Greater Johnstown Cambria County Chamber of Commerce, Conemaugh Health System, churches and nonprofit organizations should work together to submit grant applications to get funds for dealing with drugs and violent crime.

Blair County formed a similar partnership, called Operation Our Town, that has raised $2 million to use toward addressing crime and drug use.

• Rehabilitation: The Community Corrections Center, located on Washington Street, houses criminals who are trying to get acclimated back into society. Part of the rehabilitation process is for the individuals to look for work in the community. However, with the city’s unemployment rate near 10 percent and one-third of the population living in poverty, employment is difficult to find for people with criminal records. The committee recommends asking the state to move the facility to a “more vibrant community that would afford the residents more job opportunities and human services.”

The commission also called for increased communication between City Council, the city manager, local judges, the police department and drug-related halfway houses, specifically the Renewal Center of Cove Forge and New Directions of Cove Forge, concerning how clients spend their free time in the community.

• Housing: The commission feels the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds the Johnstown Housing Authority, should be asked to place a moratorium on the number of Section 8 vouchers until the concentration of poverty improves.

Section 8 is a program designed to help low-income families, the elderly and disabled individuals obtain housing. The panel feels overnight visitors – in Section 8 residences or public housing units – should register within 24 hours and occupants should be held accountable for misconduct committed by their guests.

• Education: A neighborhood activity center advisory panel should be established and work with the Greater Johnstown School District, JHA and other community partners. The centers would provide programs for children and their families.

Heroin is a common factor linking most of the issues associated with the city’s crime problem, according to the report.

While drug use remained steady in the city between 2008 and 2012, there was a significant increase in theft. There were less than 200 reported burglaries/breaking and enterings in 2009. The number jumped to almost 300 in 2012. Johnstown’s annual crime report showed 386.50 violent crimes per 100,000 people in 2011. In comparison, Altoona, another nearby third-class city, had 214.

Heroin addiction and trafficking is a major reason for the increased crime in Johnstown, according to Barbin.

“Heroin, even though it’s more expensive here in Johnstown than Philadelphia, it is very inexpensive to initially get,” said Barbin. “If you wanted a dime bag of heroin and you were in Philadelphia, you could get it for $5. If you wanted a dime bag of heroin in Johnstown, you might have to spend $15. But, once you’re addicted to it, you’re addicted. And, at that moment, the burglary rates go through the roof because you’re going to do whatever you have to do to get the money to pay the guy who’s the dealer. You’re not buying one bag of heroin at that point; you’re buying a lot of bags of heroin and you’re addicted. At that point, anything you thought you couldn’t do is out the door.”

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